Sleep apnea causes serious damage to your body. We often talk about its impact on your heart and blood vessels, increasing the risk of stroke, but we also need to remember that sleep apnea damages the brain, too.

Sleep apnea has been linked to the buildup of brain plaques that develop as part of Alzheimer’s disease.

However, the condition can also be linked to the destruction of key brain structures related to memory, such as the hippocampus. Recent research shows that sleep apnea can damage specific memory structures in the hippocampus. However, the research also shows that sleep apnea treatment can actually protect you from damage to these areas.

Man with white hair squeezing the bridge of his nose while sitting on a bed. He is suffering from memory loss and headaches due to sleep apnea

Autopsy Study

Because the hippocampus is such a key memory structure, several studies have looked at how sleep apnea impacts it. However, these studies use MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), which allows us to look at the living brain. These studies show that when people have sleep apnea, the hippocampus shrinks.

But MRI doesn’t have the resolution to show where the damage in the hippocampus is located. The hippocampus is a tiny region of the brain, and its separate memory structures are even smaller. To try to assess the impact on the different parts of the hippocampus, researchers in this study utilize autopsies on people with died with sleep apnea.

Unfortunately, there is a ready supply of such cadavers because sleep apnea can significantly increase the risk of death from many different causes. For this study, researchers looked at the hippocampus structures for 17 female and 15 male cadavers. They compared the size of different structures to the severity of sleep apnea recorded on the person’s chart.

Self, Spatial, and Basic Memory Affected

Worsening sleep apnea led to more serious thinning in three key areas of the hippocampus: the dentate gyrus, the CA1 region of the cornu ammonis, and the entorhinal cortex (EC). The dentate gyrus helps process autobiographical memories that track what happened in time and space, called “episodic memories.” It also helps us form spatial memories.

These regions also play a role in what is often called our “basic” memory, called semantic memory. This is the kind of memory that helps us remember what letters look like, what colors are called, and other simple facts of life. Damage to the hippocampus can make it hard to retrieve these memories.

Sleep Apnea Treatment Helps

But this study didn’t just highlight the areas where sleep apnea leads to damage. It also showed that sleep apnea treatment can protect those areas from damage. People who used their sleep apnea treatment didn’t experience thinning in those areas of the hippocampus. This is in addition to the ability to help control seizures and reduce migraines.

Don’t let sleep apnea steal your memories. Protect them with sleep apnea treatment. If you’re in the San Jose area, please call (408) 354-5600 today for an appointment with sleep dentist Dr. Nancy Nehawandian at Top Down Dental in Los Gatos.